The Lawletter Vol 38 No 1
Truth be told, being pulled over by the police is not one of my favorite activities. When I am pulled over, however, I am respectful of the officer and his authority. Do I have a legal right to mouth off to the police? Certainly. See City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461-63 (1987) ("The First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers."; in fact, that "is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state"). Would talking back to the officer help my situation? No—just ask Eddie Ford. See Ford v. City of Yakima, 706 F.3d 1188 (9th Cir. 2013).
As Ford was driving to work late one night, listening to music, he noticed a police car approaching rapidly from behind him. After he tried and failed to get out of the way of the police car, Ford abruptly stepped out of his vehicle at a traffic light and asked Officer Urlacher, the driver of the police car, why Ford was being followed so closely. Officer Urlacher told Ford to get back in his car and go. As the parties drove through the intersection, Officer Urlacher turned on his cruiser's lights and pulled Ford over. During the traffic stop, Ford let it be known that he believed that the traffic stop had been racially motivated. A verbal exchange ensued, with Officer Urlacher essentially informing Ford that if he would stop talking and cooperate, he might just be issued a ticket for violating the municipal noise ordinance but that if he kept running his mouth and "copping" an attitude, he would be going to jail. Officer Urlacher was persuaded by a backup officer who had arrived on the scene to take Ford to jail.
While en route to the booking facility, Ford invoked his right to free speech, to which Officer Urlacher responded by asserting his right to arrest Ford. Significantly, however, Officer Urlacher elaborated on his motivation for the action, commenting to Ford, "You talked yourself—your mouth and your attitude talked you into jail." See id. at 1191. Although Ford was prosecuted for violating the municipal noise ordinance, he was ultimately acquitted of the charged offense.
Ford then commenced a civil lawsuit against Officer Urlacher and the City of Yakima, alleging First Amendment retaliation by their booking and jailing him following his verbal criticism of Officer Urlacher.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants and remanded the case so that Ford's claims could proceed to trial. Initially, the appellate court observed that Ford's speech, criticizing the police for what he felt was a racially motivated traffic stop, fell "squarely within the protective umbrella of the First Amendment." Id. at 1193. Under Ninth Circuit law, even where probable cause existed for an arrest, the arrest is nevertheless categorically unconstitutional if retaliation was a but-for cause of the arrest and the officer's actions would chill a reasonable person's First Amendment activities. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Ford, a rational jury could find that both such elements were satisfied in this case.
Finally, the court held that in 2007, when the events in question took place, the relevant law was clearly established such that Officer Urlacher was not entitled to qualified immunity. "Police officers have been on notice at least since 1990 that it is unlawful to use their authority to retaliate against individuals for their protected speech." Id. at 1195 (citing Duran v. City of Douglas, 904 F.2d 1372 (9th Cir. 1990)). In 2006, the Ninth Circuit had held "that an individual has a right to be free from retaliatory police action, even if probable cause existed for that action." Id. at 1195-96 (citing Skoog v. County of Clackamas, 469 F.3d 1221 (9th Cir. 2006)). Accordingly, "[a] reasonable officer would have understood that he did not automatically possess the authority to book and jail an individual upon conducting a lawful arrest supported by probable cause" simply because the individual mouthed off. See id. at 1196.As a matter of law, you have the right to criticize the police, but as a matter of common sense, you should choose your battles wisely. And if you decide to exercise your constitutional rights . . . well, let's just say I would appreciate the business.